Back when bars were truly open for business, we craft cocktail drinkers would luxuriate in dreamy spaces, sipping a bartender’s shaken or stirred creation without a care in the world. Now, we must take happy hour into our own hands. For some, ice-cold beer or chilled rosé might do the trick. But for others, the in-situ cocktail experience is greatly missed.

And thus, we turned to some of our favorite bartenders and bar managers—Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham, Occidental, and American Bonded; Emily McKenna of Room for Milly and Queens Eleven; and Minetta Gould of Lady Jane and Hudson Hill—for advice on building the ultimate at-home bar.

Gould was quick to parse our question, saying “It’s important to determine why you want a home bar. Is it for yourself or do you want to have a bar to entertain?” The answer will help guide how extensive your bottle collection should become. “If it was just for me, I would have gin, Cognac, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and sherry, but I probably have 80 bottles because my bar is for entertaining,” she says. The idea being, if you drink only old fashioneds, there’s no real need to “build” a bar. But if you’re interested in expanding your repertoire or eventually (post COVID-19) mixing cocktails for others, here are the building blocks you need.

ESSENTIALS

  • Whiskey (“Bourbon and rye are somewhat interchangeable for a home bar,” says Kenyon. “But I would throw a Scotch whiskey in there, something with a light smoke. It’s essential to taking classics and playing with them—like making a Rob Roy instead of a Manhattan.”)
  • Gin
  • Tequila** (McKenna and Gould also deem mezcal indispensable, but Kenyon says that if you have a good agave-forward tequila like Tequila Ocho or Tapatío, you don’t need both tequila and mezcal on a home bar.)
  • Vodka
  • Sweet vermouth (“When you open it, date the bottle and store it in the fridge for freshness,” says Gould. “It’ll keep about two months. When it starts tasting stale or like flat soda, make yourself punch.”) Make a Hanky Panky using chilled vermouth.
  • Triple Sec or Cointreau
  • Angostura bitters
  • Campari (“I consider a negroni an essential cocktail, so Campari is a must,” says Kenyon.)
  • Cognac (“If someone really wants to get into building cocktails and not just mixing gin and tonics, having cognac on the bar is good,” says McKenna.) Try a Vieux Carré.
  • Green Chartreuse (“When Chartreuse is in a cocktail, you know. It has a presence,” Kenyon says. “I think it belongs on every bar and you can buy a small bottle.”) Try mixing up a Biju.
  • Fernet-Branca (Both Kenyon and McKenna consider Fernet an essential but Gould says “It’s an acquired taste, quite bitter. For an everyday home bar, someone would have to know they already like it.”)
  • Luxardo cherries
  • Fresh citrus (“The value in that one expression of orange or lemon oil changes the complexity and flavor of a cocktail. Sip a regular martini and then zest lemon over it—it’s a totally different cocktail. Citrus brightens everything,” Kenyon says.)

**Of course, let your preferences guide you: If, say, you hate tequila and vow never to drink it, nix it.

NEXT LEVEL

“Everyone has that one drink that feels like putting pajamas on. But a home bar should be fun, especially when we’re stuck there,” Kenyon says. With that in mind, the below additions will elevate your bar game exponentially.

  • Absinthe (“You definitely want to play with absinthe,” says McKenna. “It’s in so many drinks and a tiny bit elevates so much. A really good starter absinthe is Mata Hari Bohemian. If you’re just experimenting and aren’t sure how to use it, it’s forgiving.”) Make a Sazerac.
  • Aperol (“I think it belongs on the bar,” says Gould. “I’m pro Aperol spritz. No one is going to pass out drunk on it and it’s easy and approachable.”)
  • Lillet Blanc (“It’s has a little more depth and sweetness than a vermouth,” Kenyon says. “Lillet is not essential but it’s the difference between a basic bar and an interesting bar.” Make sure to store it in the fridge.) Try mixing a Corpse Reviver.
  • Laird’s Apple Brandy (“It really depends on how extensive you want your bar, “McKenna says. “But if you’re buying absinthe, you should be buying Laird’s.”) Try making a Diamondback.
  • Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub (“Hellfire is an awesome way to spice up a cocktail without adding another flavor,” says McKenna. “Shrubs add vinegary tartness so you get a punch of acid without a punch of citrus.”)
  • Ice (“The stuff in freezer isn’t that great. It can have freezer burn and unwanted flavors,” Gould says. “Serving drinks up (with no ice) is a good fix for that. Otherwise, the best way to do it is to seal the container you’re making ice in.”
  • Garnish (“Everyone has windowsill herb garden these days—start experimenting,” Gould says. “Serve a 50/50 martini with a sprig of thyme instead of an olive or a twist. It’s nicely aromatic and really beautiful. Put rosemary in a G&T or chive blossoms in martini. And dry spices too: If someone has cardamom pods, they make a good infusion with any clear spirit. Crack open the pods add to white rum, gin, vodka, or pisco for a couple hours for a great infusion.”)

Now, what to do with all this booze? Kenyon recommends getting to know Bar Smarts, which details the 25 cocktails every bartender should know. “Knowing those formulas and ratios allows you the foundation to play Mr. Potato Head and have whimsy,” he says. “At worst, you mix something bad and you dump it.”

Bonus: Not sure about the home bartending thing? Sign up for one of Room for Milly’s virtual cocktail classes. Or, pick up cocktails and bar snacks from Hudson Hill or order from NiteCap, a collaboration between Occidental and Williams & Graham.

Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison

Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.